Thailand should leave ‘no stone unturned’ after 62 found guilty of trafficking

BANGKOK, July 20 (Reuters) - More needs to be done to ensure that human traffickers are brought to justice and Rohingya migrants are protected, rights groups said on Thursday, after a trial in which 62 people were convicted of crimes including trafficking and murder. A Bangkok court convicted the 62, including a general, police officers and provincial officials, on Wednesday at the end of Thailand's biggest ever human-trafficking trial. The trial began in 2015 after the discovery of more than 30 bodies in shallow graves near the Malaysian border in what authorities said was a jungle camp where traffickers held migrants hostage until relatives paid ransom for their release. The discovery led to more than 100 arrests. Many of the dead were believed to be Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar, many of whom seek refuge in mostly Muslim Malaysia. Thailand has not released a full report on the graves or the results of forensic tests. "The trial and convictions was just the first step," Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. "The government needs to do more beyond this and continue investigations. It should leave no stone unturned." The court took more than 12 hours to deliver the verdicts which rights groups said showed the government was serious about the problem. The convicted included Myanmar nationals. The longest jail term was 94 years, for Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, a Rohingya man who police said was a key figure behind the jungle camp where dozens died. Thailand has long been a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children smuggled and trafficked from poorer, neighbouring countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, to Thailand or further afield, often to work as labourers and sex workers. Last month, the U.S. State Department left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The State Department said Thailand did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking, and did not convict officials "complicit in trafficking crimes". Wednesday's convictions could help lift Thailand out of Tier 2 next year, rights groups said. 'MASSIVE OPERATION' While welcoming the outcome of the trial, rights groups said more needed to be done, both to protect the estimated 5,000 Rohingya in Thailand, and to investigate the smugglers' camps where many more victims of beatings, disease and starvation are believed to be buried. Police, troops and security volunteers in 2015 did not search hills surrounding the mass grave site, despite evidence from rights groups and media that other graves were dotted along the border. "Thai authorities shouldn't sweep undiscovered mass graves under the rug of this trial," Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said in a statement. "We documented a massive operation that trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya during a three-year period. The loss of life was significantly more than the focus of this trial." Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, a government spokesman, said Thailand would press on with investigations. "The government will use the tools at its disposal to solve the trafficking problem," Weerachon told Reuters. "We won't stop at this." Myanmar's treatment of its roughly one million Rohingya has emerged as its most contentious rights issue as it makes a transition from decades of harsh military rule. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and classified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite claiming roots in the region that go back centuries, with communities marginalised and occasionally subjected to communal violence. Many take smugglers' boast across the Bay of Bengal, hoping to start new lives in Southeast Asia.

Cheong wins gold at Fina World Championships, becomes Malaysia’s first diving world champ

National diver Cheong Jun Hoong won Malaysia's first-ever gold medal at the International Federation (Fina) World Championships in Budapest on Wednesday, beating 12 other top participants. Her win (397.50 points) upset the Chinese team in the women's 10m platform diving event, beating defending Olympic gold medalist Ren Qian (391.95) who took the bronze. Chinese Si Yajie (396.0 points) won the silver medal. Cheong, 27, who is from Perak, was ranked fourth after the first two dives but moved to the top spot in an unexpected comeback. She was ranked seventh in the final based on results from the semi-final stage. Cheong had already won a bronze medal at the event with team mate Pandelela Rinong in the synchronised platform event. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak joined Malaysians on Thursday (July 20) in celebrating her gold. He wrote in a Twitter post: "Congratulations @cheongjunhoong! First world champion #Negaraku in the women's platform event at #FINABudapest2017."

What's Happening

Inside the Saudi palace coup: How the new prince reportedly became first in line for the crown

[caption id="attachment_353320" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia confers during a high-level meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants at the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York.[/caption]
On Tuesday June 20 Mohammed bin Nayef, a powerful figure in Saudi Arabia's security apparatus for the past two decades and the next in line to the throne, was summoned to meet King Salman bin Abdulaziz on the fourth floor of the royal palace in Mecca. There, according to a source close to MbN, as he is known, the king ordered him to step aside in favour of the king's favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman. The reason: an addiction to painkilling drugs was clouding MbN's judgment. "The king came to meet MbN and they were alone in the room. He told him: 'I want you to step down, you didn't listen to the advice to get treatment for your addiction which dangerously affects your decisions'," said the source close to MbN. The new details about the extraordinary meeting between the king and MbN that touched off the de facto palace coup help to explain the events that are reshaping the leadership of the world's biggest oil exporting nation. Reuters could not independently confirm MbN's addiction issues. A senior Saudi official said the account was totally "unfounded and untrue in addition to being nonsense". "The story depicted here is a complete fantasy worthy of Hollywood," the official said in a statement to Reuters, which did not refer to MbN's alleged use of drugs. The official said MbN had been removed in the national interest and had not experienced any "pressure or disrespect". Reasons for his dismissal were "confidential". Sources with knowledge of the situation said however that the king was determined to elevate his son to be heir to the throne and used MbN's drug problem as a pretext to push him aside. Three royal insiders, four Arab officials with links to the ruling house of Saud, and diplomats in the region, told Reuters that MbN was surprised to be ordered to step aside. "It was a big shock to MbN," said a Saudi political source close to MbN. "It was a coup. He wasn't prepared." The sources said MbN did not expect to be usurped by the often impulsive Mohammed bin Salman, who MbN considered to have made a number of policy blunders, such as his handling of the Yemen conflict and cutting financial benefits to civil servants. The high-stakes power grab has placed sweeping powers in the hands of the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, and appears designed to speed his accession to the throne. Should he get the job, the young prince will preside over a kingdom facing tough times from depressed oil prices, the conflict in Yemen, rivalry with an emboldened Iran and a major diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. [caption id="attachment_353326" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau[/caption] The source close to MbN acknowledged that he had health issues, which were aggravated after an al Qaeda attacker tried to blow himself up in front of him in his palace in 2009. The health issues were corroborated by three other sources in Saudi Arabia and Arab official sources with links to the royal family. An Arab source with close Saudi links also provided a similar account of the meeting at which King Salman asked MbN to step down because of his alleged drug addiction. These sources said MbN had shrapnel in his body that could not be removed and he depended on drugs such as morphine to alleviate the pain. One source said MbN had been treated in clinics in Switzerland on three occasions in recent years. Reuters was unable to confirm this independently. A PALACE COUP The King moved ahead of a meeting of the Political and Security Council. The meeting was due to start at 11 pm, but a few hours before that, MbN received what he viewed as a routine phone call from Mohammed bin Salman. According to the source close to MbN, Mohammed bin Salman told MbN that the king wanted to see him. In the hours that followed the meeting in which MbN was dismissed, the House of Saud's Allegiance Council, comprising the ruling family's senior members, were informed of a letter written in the name of the king. Drafted by palace advisers to MbS, it said MbN had a medical condition - drug addiction - and "we have been trying for over two years to persuade him to seek treatment but to no avail". "Because of this dangerous situation we see that he should be relieved of his position and that Mohammed bin Salman be appointed in his place," the Saudi source close to MbN quoted excerpts of the letter as saying. The letter was read over the phone to members of the Allegiance Council, while MbN was kept isolated in a room all night, his mobile phone removed, and cut off from contact with his aides. His bodyguards from elite paramilitary interior ministry units were also replaced. Envoys were sent to council members to get their signatures. All but three of 34 signed. The coup had worked. Calls by council members who backed MbN's removal were recorded and played to him by a palace adviser to demonstrate the strength of the forces against him and to discourage any urge the 57-year-old crown prince might have to resist. According to two Saudi sources with links to the royal house, only three members of the council opposed his overthrow: Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a former interior minister, Abdulaziz bin Abdallah, a representative of the family of late king Abdallah, and Prince Mohammad bin Saad, a former deputy governor of Riyadh. The three could not immediately be reached for comment. At dawn MbN gave up. He told a palace adviser that he was ready to see the king. The meeting was short. MbN agreed to step down and signed a document to that effect. When MbN left the king's quarters, he was surprised to see MbS waiting for him, the adviser said. MbN was embraced and kissed by MbS while television cameras rolled. Soon afterward a pre-written statement was released announcing the king's decision to make his son the next crown prince. This was the clip that would play on all Saudi and Gulf media over the coming hours and days. HOUSE ARREST MbN remains under house arrest to keep him out of circulation following his overthrow, with no visitors allowed except close family members. He is not taking calls, the source close to MbN said. In the past week he was only granted permission to visit his elderly mother with the new guards assigned to him. The senior Saudi official said, however, that MbN had received guests, including the king and the new crown prince. [caption id="attachment_353330" align="alignnone" width="1000"] U.S. first lady Melania Trump (L) speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst[/caption] The source close to MbN said he would like to take his family to Switzerland or London but the king and MbS had decided that he must stay. "He wasn't given any choice." The White House and CIA declined to comment. A senior administration official said Washington knew that MbS was the favourite of the king but "beyond that it's very opaque". The elevation of MbS had been predicted by some Saudi and Western officials, but it came much sooner than expected with a rushed exit for MbN. Since King Salman's accession, there had been clear indications that MbS was favoured over MbN, setting the stage for the younger prince to eclipse the formal heir to the throne. MbS was given unprecedented power by his ailing 81-year-old father, which he used to reorder the top jobs in the political, oil, security, security and intelligence sectors, often without the knowledge of MbN, according to diplomats and Saudi political and security sources. Since Salman took the helm just over two years ago, MbS has placed his men in key positions. MbS has been interfering in MbN's interior ministry, appointing, promoting and firing officers without informing him. The succession quarrel, the sources said, began in 2015 when MbN's personal court was disbanded and merged with the court of the king, preventing MbN from bestowing independent patronage and cultivating support. This was followed by the sacking of Saad al-Jabri, MbN's security adviser. When Donald Trump entered the White House, MbS cultivated contacts in Washington to offset the strong support that MbN had in the U.S. security and intelligence establishment because of his successes against al Qaeda. The source close to MbN told Reuters the putsch went ahead after MbS struck up a strong relationship with Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. [caption id="attachment_353327" align="alignnone" width="1000"] US President Donald Trump with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque[/caption] A White House official declined comment when asked about Kushner’s relationship with MbS. The official, referring to MbN's removal as Crown Prince and MbS’ ascension to the post, said: “The United States government also sought not to intervene or to be seen as intervening in such a sensitive internal matter. We have great respect for the King, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Mohammed bin Salman and we consistently stressed our desire to maintain cooperation with the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and its leadership. This message was communicated at all levels of government.” With MbS's sudden ascent, there is now speculation among diplomats and Saudi and Arab officials that King Salman is poised to abdicate in favour of his son. Quoting a witness at the palace, one Saudi source said King Salman this month pre-recorded a statement in which he announces the transfer of the throne to his son. The announcement could be broadcast at any time, perhaps as soon as September. (Reporting by Reuters)

Brace yourselves: Airfares and hotel prices are set to go up in 2018

The Straits Times
Planning an epic trip of a lifetime in 2018? Be warned, your wallet might not take the news so well. That's because airfares and hotel prices are expected to rise worldwide next year, according to a new report by business travel management firm Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Globally, airfares are expected to increase by 3.5% while hotel prices are expected to rise by 3.7%. Ground transportation such as taxis, trains and buses are not spared either - with a slight 0.6% rise expected for 2018. “The higher pricing is a reflection of the stronger economy and growing demand,” said Kurt Ekert, president and CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel. “The global numbers from this forecast should be considered strong leading indicators of what 2018 will mean for global businesses, as we anticipate higher spending.” Although airlines are projected to add around 6% capacity in 2018, airfares are expected to rise because of changing crude oil prices, the 2018 Global Travel Forecast reported. In Singapore, airfares are expected to rise 3.9% in 2018, partly due to higher fuel oil prices, fare segmentation and new long haul routes. The opening of Changi Airport's Terminal 4 could also lead to higher airport development fees, the report said. Complicating airline pricing is increased segmentation of basic fares among large carriers. Many airlines now provide the option of choosing a basic economy, restricted fare, with specific service options and pricing varying by airline. In Asia Pacific, airfares are predicted to rise 2.8% as domestic demand, particularly in China and India, increases. [caption id="attachment_352302" align="alignnone" width="475"] Screengrab from 2018 Global Travel Forecast[/caption] Airfares will likely jump the most in Europe, with projected increases of 7.1% across Eastern Europe and 5.5% in Western Europe. The increase for Middle East and African countries is much lower at 3.0%, as the region continues to deal with security threats and a recovering oil industry. Over in North America, the rise in airfares will likely be more modest at 2.3%, the report added. Singapore could also see a 3.2% rise in hotel prices, partly caused by consolidation among hotel groups which results in fewer competitive price options typically seen in more fragmented markets. In the Asia Pacific region, hotel prices are expected to rise 3.5% although predictions vary across the board. In Japan, hotel prices are actually forecasted to fall by 4.1%, while New Zealand's hotel prices will rise by close to 10% at 9.8%. [caption id="attachment_352300" align="alignnone" width="603"] Screengrab from 2018 Global Travel Forecast[/caption] Over in Eastern Europe, hotel prices are expected to rise 6.6% in Eastern Europe, while the increase in Western Europe is estimated to be around 6.3%, with Norway taking the lead at 14.0%. Thanks to the 2018 Summer World Cup, hotel prices in Russia are also expected to increase by 11.9%. In contrast, hotel prices in the Middle East and Africa are expected to rise by just 0.6%, while hotel prices in Latin American countries Brazil and Argentina are expected to fall by 8.7% and 2.7% respectively. [caption id="attachment_352301" align="alignnone" width="463"] Screengrab from 2018 Global Travel Forecast[/caption]

Trump: The US is ready to leave one of its most important military bases if the Gulf crisis worsens

Trump's alignment with Saudi Arabia in its campaign against Qatar raises doubt about future US operations at one of its most important bases in the region.

Going across the causeway? You can no longer book a GrabHitch between JB and Singapore

Grab has ceased its cross-border ride-sharing service run under GrabHitch.
If you were planning on booking a ride-sharing service from Singapore to Johor Baru this weekend, you should probably reconsider your transport options beforehand. A cross-border ride-sharing service run by Grab has ceased, a year after its pilot run was first launched. On its website, the Singapore tech company confirmed that all cross-border operations for GrabHitch were ceased on June 21 this year. A Grab rider who contacted Business Insider on July 17 said that he had sent Grab's customer support a message when he realised he could no longer choose a drop-off point in JB via the app.
Screengrab provided by Grab customer
A Grab representative then informed him that the cross-border service had been disabled. "This is because Malaysia has stopped using GrabHitch," the representative wrote.
Screengrab provided by Grab customer
When contacted, Grab's spokesperson told Business Insider that the GrabHitch JB-SG service was no longer being operated as its pilot programme had ended. "The GrabHitch JB-SG service is no longer operating as we have recently concluded this cross-border pilot programme." "The objective of this pilot programme is to explore the use of innovative transport services to improve cross border connectivity. We are now focusing on analysing the results from the pilot test," the spokesperson said. Grab first launched the GrabHitch JB-SG service on June 20, 2016. The scheme initially priced carpool rides from as low as RM 9. For example, a GrabHitch ride from JB's City Square to Woodlands was priced at RM 9, while a ride from Singapore's Woodlands to JB's City Square was priced at $9. However, the scheme was changed when Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) warned that a paid service such as this would violate laws in both Singapore and Malaysia. As a result, Grab changed the scheme to a fare-free pilot programme so riders could book a carpool service to travel between Singapore and JB for free. After the fare-free pilot programme ended in July 2016, Grab said via its website that customers would be able to continue booking cross-border GrabHitch rides without paying a fare. Nonetheless, an amount displayed on the booking screen would inform the rider of the minimum cost borne by the GrabHitch driver for the trip. "Drivers would appreciate a gratuity to cover some of his costs. However, passengers are not required to pay the sum," Grab said on its website.
Screengrab from Grab website
According to LTA, it is illegal for Malaysian registered cars to provide hire and reward services in Singapore without a valid licence. Similarly, Singapore registered cars are also not allowed to provide such services in Malaysia without valid licences issued by Malaysian authorities.

Apple just launched a pair of $600 Beats headphones with design house Balmain

Apple teamed up with French fashion house Balmain and Kylie Jenner to launch new, high-priced Beats headphones.

Undercover investigation finds fecal bacteria in ice at McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King

The UK government department that sets water standards in the UK claims that this bacteria should not be present in water used for human consumption.